“The much hoped for program of assistance, requested and almost pleaded for by the irrigation, school districts and community would have been the sole apparent means, not merely of saving an irrigation and school district, would have prevented the physical and financial downfall of at least one community and the disruption of several others.”
George Lawrence wrote those words to Sen. George W. Norris Jan. 2, 1942, obviously in despair over repeated rebuffs the Whitney Irrigation District suffered at the hands of several federal agencies. The district, created in 1921, was operational but mired in debt due to cost overruns during construction, and the foreclosure on more than 5,000 acres of land, thereby removing it from the tax rolls. A history of the district, compiled by Lawrence, mostly in 1941, and several letters were discovered this spring, all documenting the lengths to which the Whitney Irrigation District directors went to find relief.
By late 1941, the district had lost all hope that the Farm Security Administration would approve a rehabilitation project that would have constructed additional housing and relocated farmers from Wahoo to Whitney. Lawrence’s Jan. 2, 1942, letter to Norris was a last ditch appeal for the senator to use his influence.
“Our irrigation district seems unable to overcome unexplainable reports of a possible scarcity of water should a rehabilitation program be attempted. This seems hardly compatible with the fact that throughout the past nine dry years we have at all times been in a position to furnish all water requested and at any time during the entire irrigating season. …
“We have, throughout our endeavors to have this program established, encountered seeming opposition and various rumors to the effect that in the past the local political affiliations would work to the detriment of our objective, but most of the landowners here have very consistently discounted such rumors as being not worthy of the very powerful administration forces.”
It was “distressingly evident” that requests to agencies such as the Farm Security Administration and the Bureau of Reclamation were destined to fail or be relegated to a distant future “which we gravely fear will be much too remote to prevent the disintegration of our districts and community,” Lawrence wrote.
Nine years of drought, insect infestation and foreclosure had taken its toll, forcing schools in the area to close. Whitney’s school enlarged to accommodate those children, but didn’t receive sufficient state aid to handle the increase. At the time of the letter, the school was in arrears on its teachers’ salaries, and the educators couldn’t afford their daily expenses.
“It becomes more apparent that our educational program must collapse almost immediately subsequent to the close of our fiscal school year, even providing we are able to continue until that time.”
Within a matter of days, the Whitney Irrigation District’s fortunes evidently reversed. On Jan. 10, 1942, Lawrence again contacted Norris, thanking him for his work and noting that it was Norris’ influence that led to a revival of an FSA rehabilitation project at Whitney.
“We have a quite definite commitment relative to granting our district the much needed aid, provided that the RFC (Reconstruction Finance Corporation) will meet with them in the joint conference and assist in arranging a suitable program for the development and future supervision of the district along financial lines,” Lawrence wrote.
Correspondence a month later between Lawrence and the Lincoln FSA office discussed arranging such a meeting in order to move the project forward, with Lawrence calling it imperative given that the school had now lost two teachers due to its inability to raise funds. The education center’s accreditation remained in jeopardy as long as the situation persisted. The FSA insisted on deferring the meeting until the RFC assigned someone to the project, an outcome that was expected soon, the letters said.
Finally, in March 1942, the directors for the irrigation district saw their efforts rewarded when the FSA, RFC and Sen. Norris met with them in Chadron. During the meeting, C.B. Baldwin, the administrator for the FSA, assured the irrigation district that the project had been approved and written confirmation was in the mail.
A letter from the Baldwin’s staff in Washington, D.C., to the Lincoln FSA office was forwarded to Lawrence by Sen. Norris that seemed to confirm that the project was a go.
“I am sure that you will wish to instruct your staff who are now making a detailed study of the area to make recommendations with respect to tenant purchase as well as all other tools of rehabilitation available, including cooperative associations, farm and home improvement loans and rural improvement loans. … Please include full consideration of this proposal in your recommendation for this area.”
It’s the last document in the collection that indicates a positive response. The project was apparently terminated some time later, according to additions Lawrence made to his compiled history of the district in subsequent years.
His recollection states that the Lincoln FSA office issued a termination order for the rehabilitation project in direct opposition to the D.C. office, and while the D.C. headquarters didn’t uphold the termination, they didn’t rescind it either. Sen. Norris attempted to sway the administrators again but had just announced his upcoming retirement and lost some of his prestige, Lawrence wrote.
“It is indeed difficult to comprehend the attitude of a bureau or an individual which, or who, will recommend or order the immediate development of an irrigation project still in its initial stage of construction and admittedly cannot be placed in more than partial production prior to 1946 or 47, and abruptly terminate a tentative rehabilitation program of an operative district which lacks but a comparatively minor housing and equipment program to place it in a position to produce to one hundred percent of its capability of essential products and commodities immediately, it already being in a high state of production and lacking only operators with housing and equipment,” he wrote, possibly referring to the Mirage Flats and Angostura projects in the first half of the statement.
It was clear, at least to Lawrence, that the FSA had hoped to pass the project off to the Bureau of Reclamation, an agency that used false statement to negatively describe the Whitney Irrigation District.
“A comprehensive study of these letters, some addressed to myself and many others addressed to Sen. Norris by these bureaus, cannot but bring us to the inevitable conclusion that each of these bureaus was, to use a slang phrase ‘trying to pass the buck,’ but had however failed to realize that all copies of these very contradictory letters would ever be assembled in one file,” he wrote several years after the project was slashed.
One such letter that prompted outrage read, in part, “The district is being farmed by a very poor class of tenant farmers, that the water supply was totally inadequate, that the water must be carried much too far in the canals and that the land itself was unsuitable for crops which could be produced economically and profitably under irrigation.”